The perils of reviewing books
March 13, 2019 1:23 PM   Subscribe

In keeping with today's NYT posting theme: On Ulysses - “The average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it … save bewilderment and a sense of disgust.”
posted by caddis (26 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
(whispers) I agree with several of these takes.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:30 PM on March 13 [13 favorites]

What an incredible cover on Catcher in the Rye!
posted by Oyéah at 1:32 PM on March 13

“It seems to me to present Mr. James at his worst.”
And even at his best, Henry James ain't great either.
posted by SansPoint at 1:36 PM on March 13

I thought the Origin of Species one was such a funny opener for this premise: “Shall we frankly declare that, after the most deliberate consideration of Mr. Darwin’s arguments, we remain unconvinced?”

Extending so far beyond literary criticism in how definitively wrong you could be.
posted by little onion at 1:50 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

From Field and Stream's 1960 review of Lady Chatterley's Lover:

"This fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the occasional gamekeeper. Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer's opinion the book cannot take the place of J R Miller's Practical Gamekeeper."
posted by Paul Slade at 2:07 PM on March 13 [30 favorites]

Owh I'm at my NYT free article limit. I love reading snarky reviews, can somebody pls assist or advise on sneaky NYT backdoors?
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:35 PM on March 13

Can't you just open the links in an incognito window? That works on most paywalled sites.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 2:40 PM on March 13

...oh yeah. Thanks!
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:45 PM on March 13

I mean they are right about Joyce, and the Salinger zinger is pretty spot-on.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:47 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

I came here to say that many, if not most, of these seem pretty accurate to me, only to find that I’d been beaten to the punch.
posted by Orlop at 3:03 PM on March 13

I mean they are right about Joyce

And that’s kinda what makes Ulysses so great.
posted by thivaia at 3:28 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Regarding the review of Anne of Green Gables, I don’t think the point of the book is so much that Anne changes, but that she changes the lives of those around her, especially Matthew and Marilla.
posted by elphaba at 3:31 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

The one about Salinger seems not wrong. And I sympathize with the response to Heller.

Somewhere in my files, I have a late-Victorian book review that says something to the effect of "Mrs. Humphry Ward* will be remembered when George Eliot has been justly forgotten." It has always been a useful guard against hubris.

*--all those who are not Victorianists and recognize Mrs. Ward, raise your hand; all those who are Victorianists and have read Mrs. Ward, also raise your hand
posted by thomas j wise at 3:35 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

“It is a book one can very well get along without reading.” - Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser

As much as I love books, and reading, and the reading of books...well, that's most if not all books, really.
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:44 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]

The only thing snobbier than aggressively declaring the essential greatness of some well-known critical favorite is aggressively declaring its essential mediocrity.

Of course, the ne plus ultra of snobbery is the "a pox on both your houses" bit.
posted by kewb at 4:32 PM on March 13

I think I should be able to say that I dislike Catcher in the Rye without being accused of snobbery.
posted by Chrysostom at 4:48 PM on March 13 [7 favorites]

“There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.”
Yeah that’s the most accurate description of Lolita I’ve ever read.

It’s only now, after having written somewhere around twenty books, that I have some idea of where he went very wrong, story-wise, but even as a high school kid it was apparent that he hit the second act droop and had no idea how to recover. That thing is a slog, and it is repulsive the whole sloggy way through.

Storytelling craft matters, it turns out.
posted by schadenfrau at 5:53 PM on March 13

If you just gave me that pull quote and asked what famous book the critic was describing, I'd guess it in a second. I've been educated enough to appreciate it, but learned enough to say with confidence: fuck Ulysses. reviewing, critic guy!
posted by es_de_bah at 10:31 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Since we've mentioned Joyce, and since we're coming up on a certain date, here's my personal, decades-spanning tale of Jimmy and myself.
posted by aurelian at 11:05 PM on March 13

I'd be curious to read the 1924 review panning Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks." (That novel is magnificent.)

If you're left wanting more high-brow criticism of high culture, I highly recommend Nicolas Slominsky's "Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time."

Example: "We find Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to be precisely one hour and five minutes long; a fearful period indeed, which puts the muscles and lungs of the band and the patience of the audience to a severe trial..." -- The Harmonicon, London, 1825
posted by nikoniko at 12:35 AM on March 14

Can I just say that I'm sorry for all the scat stuff in Gravity's Rainbow? it was a bit much. I regret it.

thanks i've been feeling bad about that for a while
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 6:03 AM on March 14 [8 favorites]

Here's the link to the original Buddenbrooks review.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:03 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

I quite like Ulysses, although Finnegan's Wake is probably more fun. Different strokes I guess. I'm always surprised that critics who didn't like the conceit got far enough in to understand the dirty bits.

The rest of these are spot-on, excepting the inclusion of Darwin, which is clearly trolling.

I'd like to see more with influential books that aren't novels, say, Freud.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:17 AM on March 14

Different strokes I guess.

I remember back in the dawn of time getting into a dispute with my high school journalism teacher about "Catch 22". I loved the book and he, well, didn't. "It's all one joke!", he lamented. We didn't have the annoyingly useful and eloquent "Duh!" as an adolescent retort at the time, but, yeah.
posted by Chitownfats at 10:11 PM on March 14

OK. So let;'s talk about this. Why did Catcher in the Rye become a celebrated book, after all (at least in some quarters)? That's especially odd given that at least one major publication essentially panned it. Is it a keen portrait of adolescent disaffection, an indulgent and insufferable text that reflects the way privileged adults misunderstand the experiences of younger generations, a scathing rebuke to another kind of privilege? All or none of the above?

Or Ulysses, for that matter. Yeah, Joyce had that remark about devising a puzzle box for the professors, but why did the professors take the bait, and why so many of them over so many generations? And the book itself is odd: it can be read as (among other things) an argument for pacifism, an argument for the ordinary person's innate dignity, an argument that a relationship between two adults matters a lot more than the self-Romanticization of a would be "great artist," but and yet is written in a way many people legitimately, understandably find exclusionary, even willfully so.

So the article is sort of inherently interesting. It's taking the position that these were "wrong calls," since these books were canonized. But it's also, I think playing to a cultural moment in which all of that is deeply in question, in which older "cultural consensus" is increasingly analyzed for the sham of privilege that it was, a great popular reassessment of older modes of cultural reproduction and their bigotries.

Does that make these books part and parcel of the racist, sexist, heteronormative cultural formations within which they were first elevated, and which brandished them like weapons for so long? Or does it mean that they must reframed, rethought, identified in terms of how they fit into a more heterogenous, maybe a more atomized or contingent model of cultural participation and engagement?
posted by kewb at 7:21 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]

I actually love Catch-22, I just think the review is also accurate.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:04 AM on March 15

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